Saudi Arabia defends human rights record at UN, vows to prosecute journalist Jamal Khashoggi's killers

Saudi Arabia told the United Nations on Monday it would prosecute those responsible for the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at its Istanbul consulate, and defended its human rights record.

Bandar Al Aiban, the head of the Saudi government delegation at the first UN review of the kingdom’s record in five years, heard calls from other envoys for a credible investigation into the killing and for the protection of critics of the government.

He told the hearing that King Salman had instructed the Saudi public prosecutor to “proceed with the investigation into this case according to the applicable laws and preparation to reaching all facts and bringing all the perpetrators to justice”.

In the remarks, which did not appear in an advance transcript of the speech, Aiban gave no details on the status or whereabouts of the 18 Saudi nationals detained in connection with the case.

Khashoggi’s sons on Monday demanded the return of the body of the Washington Post columnist and critic of the Saudi government, who disappeared at the consulate on Oct. 2.

Saudi officials initially insisted Khashoggi had left the consulate, then said he died in an unplanned “rogue operation”. The kingdom’s public prosecutor Saud al-Mojeb later said he was killed in a premeditated attack.

Envoys from Australia, Belgium, Canada and Italy joined others at the debate calling for a credible and thorough investigation into Khashoggi’s death. “Reports that the killing was pre-meditated are deeply alarming,” Australian ambassador Sally Mansfield told the UN Human Rights Council hearing.

France’s ambassador Francois Rivasseau called on Saudi Arabia to “immediate halt imprisonment and arbitrary arrests” of journalists and activists, and to guarantee freedom of religion.

Austria, Belgium, and Denmark raised concerns about arrests of activists including women for their rights campaigns.

Aiban, who is president of the official Human Rights Commission of Saudi Arabia, said the kingdom was constantly striving to promote and protect human rights “driven by the honourable principles and provisions of Islamic sharia and the traditional values of our society,” said.

“The kingdom has spared no effort in combating and criminalising criminal conduct that could undermine, threaten or violate human rights, notably extremism, terrorism and corruption, and illustrating the contradiction between these acts and the principles of Islamic sharia,” he said.

Freedom of opinion and expression were guaranteed but was limited by laws that protect the rights of others as well as the “prerequisites of national security and public order”, he said.

Women’s rights were the subject of most reforms and developments over the last five years, Aiban added. Women were allowed to vote and stand as candidates in municipal councils and driving licenses have been issued to women since June. Egypt’s ambassador Alaa Youssef praised Saudi Arabia’s efforts to confront terrorism and radicalism. The United States, a major ally of the kingdom, was also due to take the floor. It has observer status, having quit the 47-member forum in June accusing it of bias against Israel.

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